I'm sketching out the benefits of a little freely-chosen austerity. A sample:
First, the health benefits. In moderation, wine and chocolate can be good for us. But moderation is hard, and we can fail to stop at one glass of red, or one bar of chocolate-nougat-caramel surprise. Going without gives our bodies a change to get rid of toxins, shed fat. Cutting out video is also a spur to exercise. Instead of sitting with square eyes, we can take a walk, do push-ups, try ‘the plank’ from Pilates.
Second, it’s a chance to discover novelty. Human life is chiefly habit. We cut our grooves, and we run in them. This is crucial, because it frees up consciousness – we don’t have to remember how to sit, walk, talk or eat. But, it can also narrow us: we stick to a tiny selection of meals, books, hobbies, sometimes conversations. Deliberately giving up coffee, dessert, alcohol or television is a chance to widen this selection. When I last gave up sweets, I discovered varieties of fruit I’d rarely noticed: new apples, pears, stone fruits. When I didn’t have the internet, I read all of Jane Austen’s novels, back to back. Instead of watching Chuggington, my son makes an epic Lego station with robots. A little less can translate to more: a broader palate, a richer mind.
Third, it’s a chance to find mental and physical blindspots. Without our familiar treats or trashy amusements, we can see how luxuries became crutches: wine used to blot out anxiety, sugar as a lift in a sedentary workday, soapies as a break from thought. The same can be true of shopping or collecting: when consumption becomes addiction, and the buzz of novelty fades. This is an opportunity to test our reliance on quick fixes. This, in turn, is a marker of our prized independence: how strong, mindful, at liberty are we?
Finally, it’s a brief glimpse at deprivation. Obviously, a few months without booze, nightly science-fiction or Tim-Tams isn’t a life of true poverty or scarcity. On the contrary, the fact that it’s chosen is what marks us as privileged. Nonetheless, it’s a small window of empathy: a hint of what it’s like to go without – to see others enjoying, and to lack their easy pleasure. It can widen our sensitivity as it shrinks our waistlines.
Going without isn't radical or revolutionary. It won’t change the basic warp and woof of one’s character, or civilisation at large.
But it can improve health, broaden horizons, sure up independence, and increase the commonwealth of experience. It’s about humble self-mastery, not self-denial.